Obamateurism of the Day

Sometimes President Obama is so brilliant that, er … no one knows what he’s talking about, and perhaps he doesn’t either. Take this quote attributed to Obama in a Wall Street Journal profile of Harold Hamm:

When it was Mr. Hamm’s turn to talk briefly with President Obama, “I told him of the revolution in the oil and gas industry and how we have the capacity to produce enough oil to enable America to replace OPEC. I wanted to make sure he knew about this.”

The president’s reaction? “He turned to me and said, ‘Oil and gas will be important for the next few years. But we need to go on to green and alternative energy. [Energy] Secretary [Steven] Chu has assured me that within five years, we can have a battery developed that will make a car with the equivalent of 130 miles per gallon.'”

Mickey Kaus is a bit mystified by the mixing of measures:

What does “130 miles per gallon” even mean in a car that doesn’t use gallons at all? What size and price of car are we talking about? (Mitsubishi already sells a car that is somehow rated at 126 mpg in the city, but it’s tiny.)  … If this is the stat Obama throws in the face of a stranger who argues with him, the President probably thinks it’s important. But is it realistic? … Larger implications:  Obama is “data-driven,”  his observant friends suggest. But how good is the data that’s driving him? The possibilities here are a) he’s well-informed; b) he’s being fed wildly optimistic estimates of the sort he wants to hear; c) he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about at all; or d) he’s BS’ing. … I’m guessing (b), at least when (as here) the issue is ideologically charged, patronage-driven and plays to Obama’s self-image as a transformational figure.

Edward Niedermeyer at The Truth About Cars is even less impressed:

What makes this so strange is that the President expressed his optimism in an MPG format. It’s one thing to say EV battery prices will drop by 70% between 2010 and 2015 (even when the CEO of LG Chem says his firm is targeting 50% improvement), or even to say that US battery manufacturing will go from 2% of the global total in 2010 to 40% in 2015… these, like the “one million plug-ins on the road” pledge are straightforward targets. But 130 MPG based on some mysterious battery? There are so many moving parts in that goal, it’s not even funny. …

Presumably, President Obama was using a number from a briefing that used an average size, weight, range and price and projected the required battery size and power for a typical car, and found that by 2015 a 130 MPG-equivalent, average-sized EV would sell for not much more than an equivalent ICE or hybrid. But given that nearly every estimate about EVs ever given out by the administration looks wildly overoptimistic, it’s tough to take that estimate at face value. So I’m wondering, do we know how Obama came up with this number? Is he referring to price drops on traditional lithium-ion cells, or a new chemistry that is expected to be on the road by 2015? FInally, is the president referring to a battery produced by the “domestic industry” or one of the dominant foreign firms and their transplant factories? This private “130 MPG” revelation seems to underpin so much of the president’s optimism about EVs, I think it’s worth taking a much closer look at.

I actually think Mickey had it right in option D.  Anyone who expresses battery strength in miles per gallon isn’t arguing from a position of expertise.

Got an Obamateurism of the Day? If you see a foul-up by Barack Obama, e-mail it to me at [email protected] with the quote and the link to the Obamateurism. I’ll post the best Obamateurisms on a daily basis, depending on how many I receive. Include a link to your blog, and I’ll give some link love as well. And unlike Slate, I promise to end the feature when Barack Obama leaves office.

Illustrations by Chris Muir of Day by Day. Be sure to read the adventures of Sam, Zed, Damon, and Jan every day!

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